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Cold to the core

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Luigi Moretti: Works and Writings By Frederico Bucci and Marco Mulazzani. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 232pp. £42

In the opening pages of the seminal Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi wrote: 'Luigi Moretti's apartments on the Via Parioli in Rome: are they one building with a split or two buildings joined?'

The accompanying illustration of this weighty looking building, riven top to bottom by a recessed slot, perhaps sealed Moretti's standing as a minor figure in 20th-century Italian architecture. Most accounts of Italian Modernism fail to mention him, or give him scant regard, so any monograph on this forgotten architect must be welcome.

In recent decades, we have Peter Eisenman to thank for one thing at least. With his PhD thesis that was subsequently published in Casabella in 1970 under the title 'From Object to Relationship', the world rediscovered the largely unfulfilled genius of Giuseppe Terragni. Like Moretti, Terragni was buried since his early death in 1942 under the mire of Fascism.

Modernism in Italy began to take hold in 1926 with the formation of the Group of 7 (Gruppo 7), which included Terragni, three years after Mussolini marched on Rome and founded the Fascist party. Its members chose the term 'Rationalist' to describe their approach, which paralleled developments in Europe, but they lashed themselves to the mast of Mussolini's Fascist party and thus were erased from the Modernist story.Yet they left a series of masterpieces, such as Terragni's Casa del Fascio (subsequently renamed the Casa del Popolo, but now a bank), his Sant' Elia school, and in Figini and Pollini's Casa al Villaggio dei Giornalisti (1934), the best Modern house in Italy. Above all stands the unbuilt masterpiece of Terragni's Danteum project.

Terragni's tragic early death poses one of the most enigmatic and poignant human mysteries of any modern architect; a broken soldier from the siege of Stalingrad, he died on the steps of his lover's house, either from suicide or, as officially reported, from a brain embolism. Moretti too had joined the Fascist youth movement, becoming its director in 1933, and he too was close to Mussolini, gaining commissions from the Duce; but he survived the war and, after a spell in prison, went on to work for the Vatican, the Roman aristocracy and the state.He never denounced the Fascist dream.

This nicely produced book attempts to bring together Moretti's work: photographs (no real plans or sections to make these more understandable) sandwiched between the joint authors' rather academic and detached essays, rounded off by an anthology of Moretti's incredibly oblique, yet poetic writings.

But the book is founded on 150 period photographs of Moretti's work, from 1932 and the early stripped Classical architecture of Gruppo 7 to the early 1970s, and some sci-fi projects that make Frank Lloyd Wright's final excesses look sane. The majority of these images prove that Moretti could create buildings of a cold, yet devastating beauty - none more so than the Fencing Hall, part of the Foro Mussolini or 'City of Muscle' in Rome from 1933-36. This is an elegant hall of marble with light washing down from above and swords precisely ordered along one wall - it is architecture fit for a place of worship, here dedicated to Mussolini's favourite sport, in a place that Moretti aspired to unite body, mind and spirit.

A Renaissance man, founder and editor of the review Spazio, a collector of antiquities, a gallery owner and art critic, Moretti undoubtedly saw himself as a true Roman in the lineage of Bernini and Michelangelo. Yet, as his writings in this book demonstrate, he was submerged in the poetic to a point of utter complexity and contradiction. His words will be food for the academic but leave the average architect cold to the core.

In looking back to the frigid beauty of much of Moretti's work, we have to reflect on the myopia, schizophrenia even, that architects seem to suffer in the divided loyalties between client and society. We must ask how architects such as Moretti and Terragni could create such beauty for such a beast.

John Pardey is an architect in Hampshire

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